VOL. 131 | NO. 254 | Thursday, December 22, 2016
New Director Wants to Raise Memphis Botanic Garden’s Profile
By Don Wade
The Memphis Botanic Garden long ago ceased being a place to just stop and smell the roses. While a rose garden is one of 28 specialty gardens spanning 96 acres, events and promotions have more recently provided MBG’s identity to the community, especially The Live at the Garden concert series.
Michael D. Allen, new executive director of Memphis Botanic Garden, says among his charges is to bring new ideas to MBG and raise the awareness of the 28 specialty gardens.
(Daily News/Andrew J. Breig)
The MBG’s new executive director, Michael D. Allen, says his interaction with the Garden mainly came through attending the concert series with his wife. He won’t go as far as to say MBG needs a full-on rebranding effort, but he does venture into that neighborhood.
“A little bit of refocusing is the word I would use,” said Allen, who most recently spent six years as president and CEO of Catholic Charities of West Tennessee. “Live at the Garden is awesome. It runs well and is financially important to the overall operation.
“But I think it somewhat, in a positive way, has taken on a life of its own,” he said. “And, in some way, overshadowed more traditional parts of the Garden. So one of the charges I’ve been given is to re-raise, if that’s a word, the level of awareness about the 28 specialty gardens. That’s what really founded this place.”
Allen, 60, who also serves as director of the Memphis Land Bank, spent 25 years with International Paper Co. before going to work in the nonprofit world. He succeeds Scott McCormick at MBG, who stepped down as executive director in May after starting the job in February of 2015; McCormick had experience as a Shelby County Schools board member and was a former Memphis City Council member. His appointment came after the retirement of longtime director Jim Duncan.
Memphis Botanic Garden, located in East Memphis, receives about 232,000 visitors and serves more than 40,000 students annually.
“If you go back in my history I’ve got corporate experience, entrepreneurial experience and most recently six years of nonprofit experience,” Allen said. “Those three pieces will all fit together and serve me. I think the Garden has got a great growth opportunity.
“We want to evolve the revenue model. It’s very heavily oriented toward earned income. We want to not mess with that but beef up the philanthropic side. Ticket sales for Live at the Garden, sponsorships for various events are a big part of the revenue today.”
Jana Wilson, MBG’s director of marketing, added: “Weekdays, conferences, meetings, there’s opportunity to grow that. Weddings are doing well. We usually sell out a couple of years in advance for the most popular dates in peak season.”
A refurbishing of Hardin Hall is one of the things Allen has in mind for 2017. He also says that his time at Catholic Charities showed him that with so many nonprofits in Greater Memphis, it’s important to be open so donors and potential donors are not left with questions about where the money goes.
“Transparency,” said Allen, adding that during his time at Catholic Charities they began publishing the Annual Report and Auditor’s Report on their website. “You can find all that going back a number of years. That’s really important to the donor.”
He also wants an open line with employees and board members.
“This is not rocket science, but communication with the staff. It’s really important that they know, not just big-picture strategically where we’re going, but how we’re doing,” he said. “What were our financials last month? How was a particular event? Or we had a hiccup because of something.
“I know on the board side when they interviewed me, they would welcome more communication.”
Noting that Atlanta Botanical Garden has an event similar to MBG’s Snowy Nights and that it was beyond packed, he believes there is room to expand and improve. He suggests, for example, why shouldn’t Memphis Botanic Garden be home to the city Christmas tree?
He also can envision partnering with a local TV station to televise a summer symphony series. Allen grew up in Chicago and in his “dating” days enjoyed going to Ravinia Park, home of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.
“I think one of the things I’m charged with is bringing ideas here, trying new things,” Allen said. “And I’m not one that’s particularly scared to fail, within reason.”